Friday, April 29, 2016

Watch This: No Country for Old Men

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

No Country for Old Men (2007)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

"The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure.  It's not that I'm afraid of it.  I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job.  But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand."

These words, spoken in the opening narration of No Country for Old Men by aging Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), often come to mind whenever there is a new report of another mass shooting, terrorist bombing, or other horrific, violent act.  These tragic events are frequently met with bewilderment, as people ask themselves, "How did this happen?  Why would somebody do such a thing?"  It is difficult to wrap your mind around events like these and to make sense of them, and it is in just such a situation that Bell finds himself as he begins to investigate the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and the ensuing trail of bodies left behind by a ruthless assassin.

No Country for Old Men takes place in 1980.  After an opening sequence that shows aforementioned assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) escaping from police custody by strangling a deputy, and then murdering an innocent motorist and stealing his car, we see lone hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in the desolate West Texas desert.  Moss comes across the aftermath of a deadly shootout between two groups of Mexican drug dealers, finding one man alive who is begging for water.  Moss leaves the scene behind and tracks down the missing money, which consists of two million dollars in a black case.  He takes the money home, but feels guilty and returns with water for the dying Mexican.  This well-intentioned decision proves unfortunate when armed men show up, but Moss escapes and returns home, where he sends his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), to her mother's and heads out of town with the money.  In the meantime, Chigurh has been hired to recover the missing cash, but he kills two of his employers and begins to track down the money using a transponder that was hidden in the case.  The following morning, Bell and his deputy, Wendell (Garret Dillahunt), begin investigating the drug deal shootout and find their way to Moss's trailer, where they realize they have just missed Chigurh.

What ensues is an increasingly deadly cat-and-mouse game as Chigurh follows Moss to El Paso, where a shootout occurs that leaves both men wounded.  We find that the same man who hired Chigurh (a nameless "accountant" played by Stephen Root) has also enlisted the services of a group of well-armed Mexicans and an ex-military operative named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who offers to help Moss while he recovers from his wounds in a Mexican hospital.  Moss, a tough Vietnam veteran, is determined to best Chigurh on his own, and refuses Wells's offer.  As Chigurh and the Mexicans move ever closer to Moss, with Bell only a step behind and admittedly overmatched, the story moves toward its violent, inevitable conclusion.

Chigurh is the embodiment of Bell's "something I don't understand."  The term "bad guy" does not even come close to doing the character justice, as he seems to be not just a man, but a malevolent force of evil that is almost inhuman in nature.  He will stop at nothing to get his hands on the money.  His brand of violence is indeed, to borrow Bell's expression, hard to measure.  Rather than using a traditional firearm, he carries around an air-powered bolt gun, designed to kill cattle quickly by shooting a metal bolt into the cow's brain.  It is an odd but effective choice of weapon.  The character is made all the more terrifying due to the unusual haircut donned by Bardem in the role, and by his detached manner.  It is chilling to think that someone like this might actually exist.

Javier Bardem won a much-deserved Academy Award for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh, and it is truly an unforgettable performance.  He is cold and calculating, but there is a hint of bemusement in his eyes as well.  There is the unforgettable scene at a rural gas station, where Chigurh toys verbally with a nervous attendant (Gene Jones), leaving the man's fate up to the result of a coin toss.  It is a tense scene, played perfectly by both actors.  It is a testament to the cast that Gene Jones is playing opposite an Oscar-winning performance in the scene, and is every bit Bardem's equal.  The rest of the cast is also uniformly superb.  Tommy Lee Jones is cast perfectly as the world-weary, laconic Bell, a shrewd and dedicated lawman who realizes he is out of his depth.  It is difficult to imagine the film's narration spoken in any voice other than Jones's measured drawl.  Josh Brolin shines as Moss in a prominent role that features surprisingly little dialogue.  It was the role that rejuvenated Brolin's career, and rightly so.  Harrelson and Macdonald are likewise superb in their small supporting roles, as is veteran character actress Beth Grant as Carla Jean's ailing, disapproving mother.

Many Coen brothers films feature characters whose actions are marked by bumbling ineptitude.  Think of hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard and the two blundering kidnappers in Fargo (1996), or the amateur blackmailers of Burn After Reading (2008).  The characters in No Country for Old Men, on the other hand, are competent and determined.  Chigurh is a relentless, violent force of nature, but Moss gives him a run for his money.  "He can take all comers," says Carla Jean about her husband, and Moss proves that her statement is more than just wifely pride, vowing to take the fight to Chigurh rather than wait it out.  Bell, too, is very good at what he does, but he understands that there is someone out there who is better still.  Many of the film's scenes feature little dialogue, and so we see these characters' competence firsthand as they perform a variety of activities, from hiding money to patching themselves up after a gunfight.

The Coen brothers are writer-directors known for their highly original films and their distinctive style, so it may seem surprising that they should not only adapt someone else's work for one of their films (in this case, a 2005 novel by acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy), but that the resulting film should remain so faithful to the source material.  Then again, this film fits perfectly into their larger body of work.  The pulpy storyline and dusty Texas setting are reminiscent of their excellent film noir debut, Blood Simple (1984), and the Coens' editing, in combination with Roger Deakins's expert cinematography, ensure that the film exhibits their unique visual style.  No Country for Old Men also features the Coens' characteristic brand of wry humor, as evidenced by the lively exchanges between deputy Wendell and Sheriff Bell ("It's a mess, ain't it, Sheriff?"  "If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here"), and by Carla Jean's mother's casual racism ("It's not often you see a Mexican in a suit").  The adaptation process worked out so well for the Coens that they repeated it again successfully three years later, bringing Charles Portis's classic western novel True Grit to the screen in another highly faithful rendition.

Most of the Coens' films contain depictions of violence, some of it brutal in nature, and a pessimistic worldview pervades most of their filmography.  But these aspects of their filmmaking seem more pointed in No Country for Old Men, a film that serves as a harsh reminder of the evil and injustice that exist in our world, and the violence that continues to plague our society.  Gone are the days when, as Ed Tom Bell mentions in the opening narration, a sheriff could perform his or her duties without a gun.

Of course, the Coens also gave us Marge Gunderson, Fargo's pregnant police chief, a bright, shining beacon of human goodness.  So, maybe there's hope for us yet.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: The Cabin

Once upon a time (in 1940), near where Brownlee is located today, the Class of 1942 built a cabin.

The cabin was constructed to be a place where the girls could hang out without being supervised by the Sisters-- thus the reason the Class of '42 built it two years before they graduated! They were able to take advantage of their own class gift. 

The cabin remained there for about twenty years. 

The names of the girls in the photos are not included in the Archives' records; as always, if you recognize yourself or someone else, let us know!

Thanks, as always, to Bill Black in the University Archives. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Cutting-Edge Technology

Seton Hill's commitment to cutting-edge technology is nothing new!

Here's the text from the newspaper clipping, dated January 6, 1977:

"RECEIVE NEW OVEN -- Sister of Charity Mildred Corvi, left, and Sister Marie Gribschaw, both of the home economics faculty at Seton Hill College, Greensburg, admire microwave oven donated to the HE department by Robert Sippos, general manager of Excel. Sister Victoria Marie recently served on a consulting panel at a microwave public interest program in Pittsburgh. The new oven will be used in the new Home Economics building at Seton Hill. The college currently offers courses in dietetics, child care, education, consumer economics, social science, food service management and fashion merchandising." 

Sister Victoria Marie remembers this about the occasion:

"The microwave was a gift that Sister Mary Schmidt gave approval to accept. It was given because one of our alums knew I was teaching Household Equipment and we did not have a microwave oven in the department. I was asked to attend a meeting of women working in the electrical industry and Seton Hill was one of the first colleges/universities in PA with a microwave oven."

Griffin Technology Advantage, indeed.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Watch This: The Gold Rush

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Gold Rush (1925)
Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin

The small, bushy black mustache.  The black bowler hat.  The baggy pants and tight-fitting black coat.  The oversized shoes and wooden cane.  The endearingly strange, waddle-like gait.

There are few images in all of cinema more iconic than that of "The Tramp," the unlucky but good-natured character portrayed by the great actor/director Charlie Chaplin.  Even today, those who have never seen a Chaplin film can instantly recognize the character, and in fact, most people might not even recognize Chaplin apart from that costume.  The Tramp's enduring popularity is a testament to Chaplin's abilities as a performer and filmmaker, and the character's appeal was never more apparent than in Chaplin's 1925 masterpiece The Gold Rush.  The Tramp made his first appearance in 1914's Kid Auto Races at Venice, and was a worldwide phenomenon by the mid-1920s, when Chaplin released The Gold Rush, which to this day remains the highest-grossing silent comedy film ever made.

The Gold Rush finds The Tramp character, credited here as The Lone Prospector, braving the elements to seek his fortune during the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century.  As the film opens, he seeks shelter from a snowstorm in the cabin of wanted criminal Black Larsen (Tom Murray).  The two are joined shortly thereafter by fellow prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who is also hoping to get out of the storm.  After being trapped inside for a few days, they cut cards to see who will venture out to find food, and Black Larsen draws the low card.  Outside, he runs into two lawmen, promptly gunning down both men after a brief struggle.  He then comes across Big Jim's claim, which we know from an earlier scene is rich with gold.  Back in the cabin, The Lone Prospector and Big Jim are forced to boil and eat a leather shoe for Thanksgiving dinner.  Their hunger is eventually sated after The Lone Prospector shoots a bear that finds its way into the cabin.  His first act after firing the shotgun is to hurriedly set the table.

The Lone Prospector and Big Jim part ways, leaving the cabin behind.  Big Jim makes his way back to his old claim, where he is knocked unconscious by Black Larsen, who shortly thereafter falls to his death after a snowy cliff edge gives way beneath him.  We later find out that Big Jim has lost his memory from the blow to his head, and wanders aimlessly through the snowy wilderness.  The Lone Prospector makes his way to a frontier city, where he meets the beautiful Georgia (Georgia Hale) in a dance hall, and he becomes a rival for her affections against obnoxious ladies' man Jack (Malcolm Waite).  Staying at the cabin of a new miner acquaintance, The Lone Prospector invites Georgia and her friends to New Year's Eve dinner, but their failure to arrive leaves him dejected.  His spirits are quickly revived the next day when a prank involving one of Georgia's love letters leaves him with the impression that she loves him.  His happiness grows even more when he runs into Big Jim, who fortunately remembers his former companion.  The two reunited friends set off for the old cabin, hoping to locate Big Jim's claim from there and strike it rich.

The film depicts life in the Klondike as a constant battle against the elements.  There are treacherous mountain passes that must be traversed.  There are freezing temperatures and blinding snow.  There are dangerously high winds during snowstorms.  In the film's thrilling and hilarious climactic sequence, a snowstorm blows the cabin to the edge of a cliff while The Lone Prospector and Big Jim sleep inside, and it tilts precariously over the chasm as they move around inside the next morning.  In addition to the threats of the natural world, The Lone Prospector is constantly in peril from his fellow human beings.  There is a wonderful scene early in the film in which he is trapped behind a table as Big Jim and Black Larsen struggle over a shotgun, which stays pointed at The Lone Prospector no matter how much he pushes the barrel aside or tries to crawl away.  Later, after the unsatisfying shoe dinner, The Lone Prospector nearly falls victim to the cannibalistic urges of the starving Big Jim, who hallucinates that his cabin mate has transformed into a giant chicken.

Indeed, the biggest threat the characters face in the first part of the film is hunger, and many of the film's most memorable scenes involve food.  Trapped inside during the snowstorm, The Lone Prospector salts and eats a candle from the lantern on the table.  Later, as he and Big Jim share the boiled shoe, The Lone Prospector relishes each bite of his portion, swirling the laces around his fork like spaghetti and sucking the leather off of the nails from the sole as though they were chicken bones.  Later in the film, as The Lone Prospector dreams about his planned New Year's Eve dinner, he sees himself entertaining his guests by sticking forks in two baked potatoes and making them dance like two oversized feet.  It is arguably the film's best-known scene, and the bit was later copied with two dinner rolls by Johnny Depp's character in the offbeat 1993 romantic comedy Benny & Joon.  That hunger plays such a key role in the film is not surprising when you learn that one of Chaplin's primary inspirations for the film was the story of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who resorted to cannibalism after becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1840s.

The comedy in silent films relies entirely on visual humor, and Chaplin's early career in vaudeville served him well throughout his later life as a film actor and director.  Chaplin's gift for physical humor was nearly unrivaled in the silent era, and his abilities are on full display in The Gold Rush.  Take, for instance, the uproarious dance hall scene in which his character's belt comes loose and falls out of his pants as he begins to dance with Georgia.  We see him reaching back repeatedly to hike up his pants, then sticking the handle of his cane through a belt loop to hold them up, all while continuing to dance.  Stopping next to a table at the edge of the dance floor, he quickly grabs a piece of rope and ties it around his pants as a belt, only to realize too late that the rope is the end of a dog's leash.  The large dog is yanked out onto the dance floor, forced to follow them around before pulling The Lone Prospector down and around the dance floor.

The dance hall scene is emblematic of The Tramp's universal appeal.  We know even before his belt falls out of his pants that the dance will not end well for him.  And yet, it's impossible not to root for him.  He is a true underdog, and although he is routinely the victim of circumstance and bad luck, he never stops striving for something better.  His bowler hat, cane, and topcoat reveal a desire to look the part of a well-to-do gentleman, but although the shabbiness of his ill-fitting clothes marks him as a pretender, these efforts evoke feelings of admiration and sympathy, rather than pity.  Of course, there is a shrewdness to the character as well, as evidenced by the scene in which he offers to shovel snow in order to raise funds for his New Year's Eve dinner.  His services are rudely declined by one shop owner, so he moves next door and clears out the doorway of another shop by piling all the snow in front of the entrance to the first shop.  He then returns to the first shop and offers his services at an increased price.  It's a sly scheme, but the shop owner's earlier rudeness makes The Lone Prospector's actions seem like well-deserved payback.

Charlie Chaplin remains one of the most important figures in all of cinema.  Along with fellow comedic actor Buster Keaton, he is one of the most recognizable faces from the silent era.  The Gold Rush is only one of his many great films, and provides a wonderfully entertaining window into his comedic genius.

A note: Reeves Memorial Library owns the Criterion Collection's two-disc special edition DVD release, which includes both the original silent 1925 version and Chaplin's 1942 sound version, which includes new music and narration.  The later re-release was considered by Chaplin to be the definitive version.  It is about 15 minutes shorter than the original version, after the removal of the title cards and a couple of short scenes, one of which involves the subplot about the prank with Georgia's love letter.  In the end, the differences are minor in terms of the overall story, so whichever version you choose, you're still seeing one of the best comedy films ever made.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Throwback Thursday: The Second Barn

There actually used to be two different barns on campus. We took a look at the one that used to be out front on the main drive last week.

This week, we're going to look at the barn that used to be roughly where Havey is now!

The stairs down from Lowe toward Sullivan Lawn didn't used to be there; instead, there was a bridge that led over to the barn. 

Here's a "Hallowe'en masquerade" in the barn in 1956.

Archives does not have notes as to the persons in the pictures; do you recognize anyone?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Origins of the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 and died very patriotically on the Fourth of July in 1826. In between, he collected a lot of books, which ultimately launched a truly impressive institution. In honor of Jefferson turning 273, let's take a look at his library's legacy: The Library of Congress.

Have you ever visited the Library of Congress (affectionally abbreviated "the LoC") in Washington, D.C.? It's "the nation's first established cultural institution and the largest library in the world," and it serves as the unofficial national library of the United States. It also oversees the U.S. Copyright Office, among other things. 

In 1800, Congress decided that it needed a reference library. It spent $5,000 to stock the Capitol Building with its new collection, which unfortunately was burned and otherwise destroyed 14 years later by the British.

Former President Thomas Jefferson resourcefully suggested that his personal library be used as a replacement (if they paid for it, of course). Jefferson's interests were quite diverse, and his collection reflected that. Some people thought that a lot of the material didn't seem to be directly related to legislation. Jefferson, however, insisted "There is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." The LoC has taken this as something of a mission statement and perhaps a challenge ever since. (source)

Congress eventually shelled out $23,950 for Jefferson's 6,487 volumes, which became the core around which the rest of the library grew. A lot of those originals were burned in 1851 (fires are really not great for libraries), but the survivors can still be viewed together in the LoC's Rare Book and Special Collections area. You can also browse a lot of the collection digitally on your iPad by clicking here

Today, the Library of Congress is definitely worth a visit when you're in D.C. 

Public-domain images from Wikimedia Commons. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Throwback Thursday: First Barn

Happy Thursday!

Did you know that there used to be a barn down on the hill, near where the underpass beneath the railroad tracks are?

It burned down in about 1907. In the field in front of the barn, you can see sheaves of what may be wheat. 

The railroad eventually took 50 feet of the Sisters' land where it bordered the tracks. In exchange, the railroad constructed the front drive.

Many thanks to the SHU Archives and Bill Black for the photos and stories. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

April DVD Spotlight: Bad Movies

Do you love to watch bad movies?  Are you a fan of the How Did This Get Made? podcast or the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000?  If so, then Reeves Memorial Library has got what you need.  From now until the end of the semester, we're featuring movies that are so bad, they're good.  And some that are just plain bad.

We've got cult classic B-movies like Mars Needs Women (1967) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958), widely considered to be the worst film ever made.  If you're looking for something featuring your favorite stars of today, we've got Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli (2003), and John Travolta's sci-fi stinker Battlefield Earth (2000).  We've even got an extensive collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVDs, featuring many of the best episodes from the series.

Other featured titles include:

Bride of the Monster (1956)
Can't Stop the Music (1980), starring The Village People
Catwoman (2004)
Frogs (1972)
Leonard Part 6 (1987)
Night of the Lepus (1972)
Queen of Outer Space (1958)
They Saved Hitler's Brain (1963)

Check one out today!